There’s a reason we never see the villain in The Assistant. “A lot of people like to think, ‘Well, Harvey Weinstein is in prison now, it’s all fixed,’” says Kitty Green, whose new film was inspired by the #MeToo movement. “I wasn’t trying to explore the bad apples. The film’s pointing to a larger problem, a systemic problem – a cultural problem, essentially – that still continues.”
As the first film to tackle the Weinstein revelations head-on, The Assistant could have been gratuitous, sensationalising the trauma many women endured at the hands of the disgraced Hollywood producer. It couldn’t be further from that. Released just weeks after Weinstein began his 23-year prison sentence, and described in this publication’s five-star review as “masterfully nuanced on every level”, the film was made with the belief that bad men have had enough screen time. It’s as chilling as it is compelling.
Unfolding over the course of a single day, The Assistant follows Jane (Julia Garner), a low-level assistant at a film production company. The newest member of staff, she is the first to arrive each morning and the last to leave. She makes coffee. She sends a young woman clutching headshots into a one-on-one meeting with the boss (who’s never referred to by name). She clears up clutter from a meeting. She returns an earring from her boss’s floor to a second young woman. She books appointments. She escorts a third, very young woman (a new hire) to a hotel to meet with him. We don’t know exactly what he’s up to – the limits of Jane’s knowledge are the limits of ours, too – but we have our suspicions. As does Jane.
At first, though, she goes along with it. “Jane doesn’t know what goes on when they go into that room,” says Green. “The door’s closed, and she immediately has a job to do that is keeping her from putting the dots together. So in that sense, I was interested in just how much someone in that position would be aware of. All those women that come through that office – at least three that day – Jane is trying to figure them out and what they’re doing there and whether they want to be there or not.”
“This girl is fairly new in the business,” Garner told Vulture of her role. “She probably just got out of school and she’s struggling with what’s right and what’s wrong, but she still wants to keep her job. For people who maybe have worked in an abusive environment and they are like, ‘I said something!’ I’m like, ‘No you didn’t, you wanted to keep your job.’ It’s about that. It’s not about Weinstein. There [have been] so many cases, so it’s about not forgetting them, not having to go back to square one, where we were.”
The boss’s behaviour certainly seems to be an open secret among Jane’s male colleagues. They listen on the intercom to the animalistic male grunts coming from his meeting room, and laugh. They joke about avoiding the chaise longue in his office. A voice on the phone tells her to “just ignore” the two cheques with no names on them. This is a company filled from the ground up with toxic behaviour – those who enact it, those who enable it, and those who do nothing to stop it.
“I was definitely trying to explore something that was less about the bad apples and more systemic,” says Green, who worked in documentaries – most recently 2017’s Casting JonBenet, about the murder of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey – before making The Assistant. She didn’t know at first that this would be a fiction film; she initially envisaged it as something quite different, following a sour experience taking Casting JonBenet to Sundance Film Festival. “The first question I was asked when I landed was which of my two male producers I get my ideas from,” she says with a scoff. “And I remember immediately feeling so upset. The idea that I’d worked that hard to get a film into Sundance and people weren’t giving me credit for it or were assuming that I wasn’t really in charge – it kind of messed with my self-confidence. I was having a lot of interactions with male journalists and critics who were saying things, subtly, that were making me feel as if I wasn’t being taken seriously. So I started working on something that was about power structures.”
That idea gradually evolved into an exploration of consent. She started speaking to young women on college campuses. “Then when the Harvey Weinstein story broke, the press was focusing on these bad men,“ she recalls. ”I knew, and I think a lot of women knew, that these were more structural and systemic sexism problems, that there is a sexism inherent in the film industry. So I shifted focus.”
This is why Green chose not to even show the boss on camera – so that she didn’t risk the extent of the problem being overlooked. “In order for things to change,” she says, “we need more women in positions of power. So let’s explore why there aren’t. Instead of looking at the top down, let’s go bottom up. Let’s look at the youngest female employee of that company, and why she isn’t being promoted, and why she isn’t allowed to climb the ladder the way the boys are, and what’s preventing her from moving into a position of power. That’s the crux of the film, essentially.”
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Jane’s two male co-workers are disrespectful and dismissive. They throw screwed-up paper at her when they want something, sneer at the sandwich she brings them because it’s turkey not chicken, and expect her to field the calls with the boss’s irate wife.
“I was interested in micro aggressions,” explains Green. “Those tiny moments that often go unnoticed by men, and I think women pick up on. I felt like the close-up in a fictional film could show that in a way that a documentary couldn’t. The glances and gestures. The way men take up space in an elevator. I wanted to amplify those.” Does she see a connection between those micro-aggressions and the more severe abuses of power? “It’s complicated, because you can’t conflate a toxic work environment with something as horrific as sexual assault,” she says, “but I mean, if you let people get away with certain behaviours, then they will push it a little further the next time. We need to prevent any of this from going on in the first place. The safer and more fair we can make our workplaces, the less likely there will be sexual misconduct and sexual assault going on. It’s a spectrum, I guess, of abuse.”
Jane’s workplace is neither safe nor fair. In perhaps the most devastating scene of the film, after growing concerned for the welfare of the boss’s alarmingly young and inexperienced new hire, who has been at a hotel with him for several hours, she gathers up the courage to go to HR. For a moment, it seems she might have found a sympathetic ear. But as Jane struggles to articulate herself, or come up with any concrete proof of her suspicions, it becomes clear that this man in a suit (a smarmy, supercilious Matthew Macfadyen) is not on her side at all. “When I found out, I came straight here,” she says. “Sorry, what did you find out?” There’s a long, painful pause. “What can we do?” she says, desperate. “Do about what?” It is no use. She retracts the complaint, collects her belongings and goes to leave. “You don’t have anything to worry about,” he says when she reaches the door. “You’re not his type.”
Green captures all of this in low, dreary saturation. There’s no score, just the sound of whirring printers and ringing telephones. All the while, the camera stays uncomfortably close to Garner, who is vulnerable and tightly coiled. As the humiliations and moral compromises wrack up, the life seems to fade from her big, wounded eyes.
In researching the film, Green consulted with women who had been in similar situations. “I spoke to a lot of young women who had been in positions that made them very uncomfortable but felt they didn’t have the power to speak up, or tried to speak up and were shut down,” she says. “I do think the press were very quick to label anyone that was an assistant to somebody who was a predator to be an enabler, and it’s so much more complicated than that. If you are the youngest woman on the desk of someone like that, it’s a really difficult position to be in. I wanted to show how she, too, is a victim of a toxic and gendered work environment.”
Some of the women Green spoke to even had similar experiences with their companies’ HR departments. “A lot of them had gone to HR with complaints and felt almost gaslit,” she says. “They walked out confused about why they went in in the first place. HR departments are there to protect the company, not the employees, so you go in there looking for support and you realise that you’re almost in trouble for being there in the first place. That kind of relationship, and the machinery that supports a predator like that, all of the systems and structures he’s built around himself, was interesting to me.”
Still, Green doesn’t buy into the concept of “men bad, women good”. At one point towards the end of the film, an older woman turns to Jane in the lift and says something that is at best ignorant, and at worst, utterly malicious. The character was originally a man, but a friend of Green’s read the script and suggested that she change it. “There’s a lot of women who have made the wrong choices and who’ve treated women terribly,” she says, “and I do think all of that needs to be examined and interrogated.”
Green shot The Assistant in just 18 days, but it took a little longer than that to get it financed. Often, she found that the women at production companies loved it, but their male colleagues would shut it down. “I think a lot of this behaviour is still going on in workplaces, and I think people are a little afraid to confront that idea,” she says. “The idea that we’re highlighting scares some people, because it’ll force them to have to confront their own behaviour, and that makes people uncomfortable. But I think a certain amount of discomfort is a good thing if we’re gonna move forward.” She laughs. “Change is a little uncomfortable.”
‘The Assistant’ is out on Curzon Home Cinema on Friday 1 May
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